This week five million Norwegians woke to happy news. Their country now comes top in the World Happiness Report, having leapfrogged several countries. We celebrated our official happiness with an extra piece of brown cheese on our breakfast bread. Best of all, we’re above Sweden, the neighbour we love to beat in skiing, football – and euphoria. And we’ve knocked Denmark, three-time world champion, into second place. How did we do it?
I have visited every country in the world so ought to be in a position to look at my countrymen and women from the inside and out. Norway and Denmark share the word and concept of hygge – making a cosy, convivial atmosphere. Both nations cherish sharing activities with friends and family. For us, it’s skiing in the mountains of Hemsedal, hiking by the fjords and picking berries in the forests. But the Danes lack both peaks and fjords.
Norwegians also have hytta, the mandatory log cabin – ideally handy for the sea or ski slopes. Top cabin spots are the white-painted coastal towns of Sørlandet (the South Country) and the mountains near Lillehammer.
My cabin, by Skjomen fjord in the north, doesn’t have electricity, water or a road to it, and only an outdoor loo. For us the lack of luxury means an escape from modern life, with added fresh air and majestic wilderness. Light some candles, play a card game and you’re in hygge heaven. Throw in the four very distinct seasons, the midnight sun and the northern lights, and you have a natural wonderland. And universal public access to the wilderness means everyone can enjoy it.
We believe experiences beat physical things by miles. Few of us see the point in sports cars or designer clothes; lasting friendships and shared memories are so much more valuable. Equality brings happiness, and this is a priority in Norway. Oil and fish have made us wealthy, and there are relatively small differences in income across society, so envy gets less of a shot. Tax is high, but healthcare and education are free, and most feel we get value for money.
Hell, we even like to help each other without being paid, and have a word for it: dugnad, where everyone contributes their time and skills. Tidying, repairing or building together is a Norwegian phenomenon that brings us closer to neighbours or other parents at our kids’ school. Afterwards we share coffee, a meal or a beer. And many smiles.
In Oslo I particularly like the bars along the Akerselva river and near Bislett stadium. Tromsø, Bergen and Ålesund are charming smaller towns, virtually surrounded by fjords, with outstanding food and nightlife. Be aware that in the summer, it will really do your head in when the sun is up as you leave the bar at 3am. Make sure your hotel room has thick curtains.
Ironically, we’re probably happiest abroad. Everywhere seems a bargain when you come from one of the world’s priciest countries. On holiday we can upgrade from prosecco to real bubbly.
Of course the Danes won’t be happy they’ve been outhappied. We’ll have to prove our smiles are real to withstand any threat to our new happiness crown.